Ellie Virgona: Ellie Virgona’s CommUNITY News no. 3

It’s almost the end of July and I’m 1.5 months shy of my 2 year anniversary here in TL.  WOW! Hasn’t the time flown!

I think Tony had it right (Palms Volunteer in PNG) when he wrote about the highlight(s) for him because there’d be no way to sum up all the experiences (good and bad) of 2 years.

Recently I had an opportunity to go on a ‘field trip’ to see 4 primary schools in the Ermera District.  An NGO (Norwegian Refugee Council – N.R.C) has been assisting TL citizens for a number of years and for the last couple of years have been working in the Education sector.

It was a tough ride for both my stomach and derrière, the wet season has made the roads a bit ‘jiggy jiggy’.  Never the less on Monday morning we drove to a village called Likisi (this school is in Ermera Vila subdistrict), the children were happy, the teachers who’ve received 5 weeks classroom training had lots of positive things to say. They are beginning to see themselves as professionals and are grateful that someone believes in them enough to invest time and resources.  The N.R.C. trainers are just so proud of their contributions. (All Timorese staff.)

'Calico' mountain
We then made our way to a village called Talo. (Located in the subdistrict of Hatolia.) It’s like a little rectangle, (piazza) surrounded by sheds.  But those sheds are peoples’ homes.  The school is to the left, the principal’s house is to the back with a little kiosk attached.  Not far from the school.  The school oval, concrete court and swing set are the focal point at the centre.  Then there’s a long drop off at the front to sudden death.  You look out and see a gorgeous mountain called something like (Calico bag – but its not that. It’s a name that starts with C and has an a and i in it.) It’s just GORGEOUS! But it is FREEZING COLD.  There’s no electricity, no heaters, no hot water, but it’s amazing how warm you feel after a dunking of cold water. (NOT!)  The rest of the community live in the mountains.  Sometimes the children and teachers walk for an hour to get to school.  (Obviously, not the principal!)

Here at this school I watched the children play cat and mouse and play mental activities to ‘grab’ their focus and attention.  Here’s one of the activities for you.

It’s called Kuartu Haat (Four Beds)
Story:  One day 5 people were travelling for a long time and when evening fell, they stopped at the nearest village looking for accommodation.  The place they arrived to first said they only had 4 beds.  The travellers looked at each other and said that was ok.
Can you fit 5 travellers in 4 beds???

Students play cat and mouse
You can of course, but I can’t tell you the answer until I return home.

Tuesday morning, after slipping not so daintily on a wet rock from the early morning dew & landing on my face, I had some welcoming hot coffee and bread and peanuts that were fried in oil. (It keeps you regular!) We thanked the principal and his wife and the trainers and made for a long drive to Atsabe subdistrict.  Further up the mountain. Positively beautiful landscape! We stopped off at another principal’s place in Nunurema first, to have some lunch and speak with the trainers at that school.

…you could definitely still hear the frustrations of processing feelings of being ‘left behind’ and ‘forgotten about’ by the “Education System”

We then drove for 15 minutes further in land to a village called Obulo.  It is quite remote.  And whilst listening to the principal and primary school teachers share positive & appreciative thoughts and opinions about the training and program, you could definitely still hear the frustrations of processing feelings of being ‘left behind’ and ‘forgotten about’ by the “Education System”.

Talo Primary School
A car can easily enough get in to the school.  It’s just not a wonderful ride.  To date, even after the school’s rehabilitation, no superintendant or education minister has visited the school.  Hopefully, they’ll have time soon.

Usually, two children walk for more than an hour into town to pick up a 10 kg sack of rice so that the staff can feed the children at the school.  That’s perhaps every fortnight.  This is a reality for some remote schools.  Not something we’d ever expect our kids to do.

The NRC trainers are spirited people and love what they’re doing.  There was no electricity in that village either, but as we sat together that evening sharing in a meal, the men entertained us women with some funny stories by candlelight.  (Maun Hermann had a funny one about tomatoes.) Now, generally speaking when people are excited, they speak really quickly, so I reckon I could only understand half the story and often missed the punch line.  It made me realise how important learning the language is, and how connected we become when we have it and can communicate effectively, even just to share humour in a funny story.  However, more importantly, building our relationships in community by being present and open.

The children truly ‘performed’ for us…

Students at Talo PS
The next morning on our return, we stopped at the primary school in Nunurema and WOW!  As soon as we pulled up in the car, you could feel the energy from the students singing and the smiles.  This is only a small school from class 1 – 3.  The children truly ‘performed’ for us, sang a whole gamut of songs that we sing in Australia but have been translated into tetun, then a little girl of about 7 years of age, stood out the front at the assembly, and in a confident voice, lead the prayer for the entire school.  Clear, confident, respectful and nothing short of gorgeous.

Now I was only attending this trip as an observer, but somehow having believed I was invisible initially, I wasn’t invisible any longer, and the principal thanked me for visiting their school and bestowed a tais.  I was quite overwhelmed and unprepared, and all that would come out of my mouth was, ‘Obrigada barak! (Thank you very much!)  To which all the children replied, ‘Nada (You’re welcome).

I felt like an idiot, actually a retard because I could’ve said a lot more and shown my gratitude a lot better. But the moment passed, so I spoke with the principal afterwards. He was also a shy man.

In having the opportunity to attend this ‘field trip’, it made me realise how important it is, not to get so lost or wrapped up in my own little bit of what I think I might be doing in the world.  To take the opportunity to see that there are a number of wonderful people doing things in an extraordinary way in this country.  It ‘s not something that reaches everybody, but for many in this moment for these people involved, it is so, so incredibly important to their livelihood, to their mental and spiritual connectedness and to their communities and the children in them who ‘are the future’ in this country.

As for the work I’m doing here teaching English.  I have felt mostly, hugely unsuccessful, but I think only because I’m often caught up in my own definition of what I think ‘success’ means.  Not to forget to mention my own social and cultural construct of success.

I have told my students that soon the course will finish and that I’ll be returning home to Australia.  They ask me if anyone else is coming to teach.  I try to explain that being a volunteer is a big commitment for us.  We leave behind our families, our jobs, our culture, our friends, our livelihood and a way of life we know and understand. Sometimes we let go of other dreams too. It is a big decision to make.  I don’t know if there will be anyone else.

Just last night, one of my students who attends sporadically, like once every 5 weeks, rang me and said, “Teacher, I just heard you are leaving soon, I will miss your kindness, you have been good to us, is anyone else coming.”

I thought it strange for this to come from him, honestly he didn’t attend class that often and rarely did any homework I gave, that it was a surprise to me, but then I thought again how maybe I’ve got it all wrong and perhaps have spent these past 2 years in a place of misunderstanding rather than accepting.

I thought again how maybe I’ve got it all wrong and perhaps have spent these past 2 years in a place of misunderstanding rather than accepting

I think the fact that he rang me especially to say this, (that was his money), and how other students hang around after class to chat with me must surely show, that this opportunity to attend the English course and the connection and their expression of hope for the future says a great deal more than I can explain here.
Christine, (Palms Australia Coordinator) sent me an email to explain that what might look like a complete failure or mistake or waste of time for us, has allowed the community an opportunity to make a decision about what they think they need, and actively seek it, request it and learn to respond and deal with it.  This is true.  She said that the fact that I still have a handful of students still attending the course, shows that it has been a success and that I have responded to their commitment and desire towards a future with purpose and intention.

I’m glad God put her in my path to help me see what I couldn’t in my blindness.  Amazing Grace and all!

Coming to TL has been one of the most incredible and amazing things I’ve ever done in my life and I wouldn’t swap it for anything.  I hope God blesses me with many opportunities to do mission/volunteer work again.

Until next time
X Ellie

add to del.icio.us Digg it Stumble It! reddit facebook TwitterSHARE THIS PAGE

You give but little when you give of your possessions. It is when you give of yourself that you truly give. - Kahlil Gibran